State Sen. Trent Garner, a free speech skeptic and drudging demagogue, has once again called for the impeachment of Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.

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Like his mentor and employer Tom Cotton, when Garner thinks he’s got some good red meat, he perseverates endlessly. It is an unusually tedious form of grandstanding: The rote-winger. When the camera light is on, someone like Jason Rapert can play any number of tunes on his fiddle. Garner just keeps banging the same note. It’s sad.

A year ago, almost to the day, Garner used the Senate information office to distribute a statement calling on the state House to issue articles of impeachment against Griffen, who infuriated Garner by engaging in free speech that Garner did not like. Garner argued that Griffen was a “disgrace to the court” who should be removed for “gross misconduct.” He said that Griffen’s public statements regarding police misconduct, the Little Rock School District, Israel and Palestine, race, and various other matters were “egregious.” (Sample from Garner’s complaints: “He said that we live under a system of ‘white supremacy,’ where white people have a fear of ‘losing control over people of color.'”)

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Garner was particularly upset about Griffen’s participation in a death penalty vigil on Good Friday of last year, during which Griffen lay bound on a cot. Griffen said that he was depicting the crucifixion; Garner and other critics saw it as symbolic of an inmate prepared for lethal injection (earlier that day, Griffen had issued an order against the state in a property lawsuit alleging that Arkansas had obtained execution drugs from a supplier by dishonest means). Griffen is now in an ongoing legal battle over the matter with the state Supreme Court, which barred him from hearing death penalty cases in response to the demonstration.

As we noted earlier, last night Griffen once again strapped himself to a cot during a death penalty vigil. Garner wasted no time in responding, shortly after the news broke. Being mad at Wendell Griffen is politically profitable for Trent Garner.

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He later added the hashtag “#impeachment.” Histrionics are good for the brand.

Garner has also voiced displeasure over Griffen’s ruling on Monday that a 2015 law, which allowed underage witnesses in sex crime cases to testify with a comfort dog sitting next to them, was unconstitutional. Griffen found that the legislature had usurped the authority of the judicial branch in mandating specific court procedures, such as the process for how prosecutors make the request to use a comfort dog during witness testimony, the process of seating the witness and jury, and the instructions given to the jury about use of the dog. (Attorney General Leslie Rutledge complained about Griffen’s ruling to the media, but did not file a response even after Griffen ordered that she be notified because the challenge was on constitutional grounds.) Griffen’s ruling made no objection to the use of comfort dogs, or the granting of that right to underage witnesses, but found that the legislature had improperly dictated court procedures in violation of Amendment 80 to the state constitution, passed by voters in 2000, which gave the state Supreme Court the sole authority to establish such rules.  It’s a sticky separation-of-powers legal question, but Garner (speaking of separation of powers) naturally used the opportunity to demagogue and grandstand for impeachment.


The ruling was not about the alleged victim, who of course is sympathetic in this case, or whether she should be allowed to have a comfort dog in the courtroom. It was a ruling only on the question of whether the legislature can dictate precise courtroom rules, which Griffen found violated Amendment 80. But let’s not let that get in the way of a demagogue day afternoon.

“How could Judge Griffen deny a little girl who is a rape victim the opportunity to have a comfort dog with her as she testifies?” groused Sen. Jason Rapert. “Perhaps he feels more inclined to comfort the accused rapist just like he does murderers on death row?”

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“Judge Wendall Griffen seems to dislike child victims,” tweeted Rep. Rebecca Petty, who sponsored the amendment. “He loves death row inmates who kill children.”

Whatever one might think of Griffen’s legal reasoning, such comments do not inspire confidence that the Arkansas General Assembly is capable of a sober impeachment process. Indeed, Garner’s intention seems precisely to be to use the impeachment process to get rid of an elected judge whose rulings — and utterances off the bench — he happens to disagree with. (In an impressive, if confusing, display of message discipline, Garner also said that Griffen’s ruling in the comfort dog case showed that voters should pass the so-called “tort reform” amendment to the constitution on the ballot this fall; that ballot measure has nothing to do with comfort dogs but rather would impose caps on the damages that places like nursing homes would have to pay out if a jury found that abuse led to pain, suffering, or death.)

It’s worth noting that the underlying charge that is being leveled against Griffen is that his expressed opinions render him biased in his rulings from the bench — but Garner himself would be in the role of judge in a hypothetical impeachment trial. It sure sounds like Garner’s own biases have led him to prejudge his dreamed-of case against Griffen.

Garner’s grandstanding last year didn’t go anywhere, but it likely contributed to the House tackling impeachment procedure during a special session last May. The House passed a resolution, by a vote of 73-13, to enact certain protocols for impeachment. The resolution requires 34 members to co-sponsor and file a resolution, requires that a committee investigate and make a report and recommendation, and establishes that a simple majority in the House is the requirement to impeach an officer subject to impeachment (the governor and all state officers, judges of the Supreme and Circuit Courts, chancellors, and prosecuting attorneys). If the House impeached such an officer, it would then move to the Senate for a trial, where the constitution requires a two-thirds majority to convict and remove the officer from office. If lawmakers actually proceeded against Griffen, it would be an extraordinary act: The Arkansas legislature has never impeached a judge.

Previously there were no promulgated House rules about impeachment at all. While the state constitution describes some procedures for the trial in the Senate, it only devotes a single sentence to the matter of impeachment in the House: “The House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment.” Prior to the enactment of the resolution last year, the Speaker of the House would have had apparently unlimited authority to enact whatever impeachment process he or she wanted. Under the new rules, if 34 members are willing to co-sponsor a resolution, the prescribed process begins.

That could happen outside of a legislative session, so long as the Speaker of the House called the body to convene to allow the filing of the impeachment resolution even if no session was called.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam said he had not come to any conclusions about the idea of impeachment proceedings against Griffen.

“I look at things more from a methodical and procedural manner and I still haven’t actually reviewed everything from yesterday to see what actually transpired, what Judge Griffen did, and see how that fits in to the larger schematic of what has taken place with the Supreme Court,” he said. “I have to review all that. I’m not rushing to any judgment. In fairness to a process that might occur down the line, I feel that it’s very important that we hold that impartiality and look at the evidence as it’s presented, and we so do in a fair manner. I want to make sure that the process is pure, and that if we go down that road, we’ve done so in a fair and honest manner.” 

Gillam said that he has not yet had any members contact him or visit him asking to move forward on impeachment proceedings (though he said a few members sent him links to video footage or stories about Griffen’s action at the vigil yesterday).

“Any time you’re discussing impeachment of any official, you need to do it with caution,” Gillam said. “It should not be done on a whim.”

If a resolution is filed by at least 34 members, the rules mandate that the Speaker must send the impeachment resolution to a committee of his choosing to investigate the charges via public hearings, and then to the House floor once the committee makes its recommendation and report. Could the Speaker block them from filing such a resolution outside of a session? That’s a thorny legal question with no certain answer, but in any case, Gillam said that if 34 members want to co-sponsor the resolution this year, he will not stand in the way and the process will proceed. He said that the Judiciary Committee would be the likely choice to investigate the charges and present a recommendation in that event.

“Truthfully, I think you would probably get a more attentive and focused body if we were not in session,” Gillam said. “If it was going to happen, it’s probably better served to happen outside of a session.”

Garner has at least one House member ready to file a resolution to start the impeachment process. Rep. Bob Ballinger, currently running for state senate, tooted out his thoughts on social media: